Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

(Photo Credit: consequenceofsound)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” “Drinking With the Jocks”

In a small number of scattered homes throughout America, there are sexist Nazi punks who have to wake up every morning and draw over their Against Me! tattoos with sharpies. There is a truly despicable branch of people known as Nazi punks, who love any political punk band and can wrongfully relate the band’s liberal politics to their own hateful ones. Nazi punks have been taken on before – notably here and here – but “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is an indirect strike. Against Me!s first five albums were sharply political and tackled political issues more directly than almost any other band. But this is their first album since singer Tom Gabel came out as transgender and announced she would be living as Laura Jane Grace. And as one of the first successful transgender singers, and certainly the most famous one in the punk community – this becomes an incredibly important album.

Grace’s transition is addressed in the majority of the album’s songs. The two opening tracks, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “True Trans Soul Rebel” are the most direct. “You want them to see you like they every other girl / They just see a faggot” she sings on the title track. The album perfectly balances the line between heart and anger; each song is a lesson, an attempt to teach shitheads that don’t understand the transgender life. It borders on a shock lesson – “I want to piss on the walls of your house / I want to cut those brass rings off your fat fucking fingers” she sings on the closer, “Black Me Out.” “Drinking With the Jocks” is a pounding track about recognizing differences, and “Unconditional Love” is a brutal, self-deprecating song about loving someone with identification issues. Tracks 5 and 6 are likely to go down as two of the best titles of the year – “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” and “FUCKMYLIFE666.” It’s shocking, even for them, but it’s necessary.

Unfortunately, some of the songs don’t hold up simply on a musical standpoint. While all good on their own, some of them blend together a little too much. The album’s middle sags under songs that have the energy of classic Against Me!, but don’t have the unique songwriting. This might be reflective of a band that has kind of fallen apart. Since “White Crosses” in 2010, two members of the band quit. Famous punk drummer Atom Willard was brought on for percussion work, and Grace just handled bass herself (except NoFX’s Fat Mike, who shows up on two tracks). Still, Gabel’s voice was always very strong, and that hasn’t changed through the transition. Grace’s vocals are strong and have a wide range.

When “White Crosses” came out, it was preceded by an exceptionally boring single, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist.” It felt like a coda; the statement of maturity felt like the band giving up. But they’re recharged on “Transgender.” They have a renewed energy and a new MO. They’re hitting territories never hit by a punk band before. This might not go down in history like the band wants it to, simply because it doesn’t have their most memorable songs, but it should still serve as an incredibly important work and stamps an intense start to 2014. Grace is nothing less than a hero, and “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” acts as a proud, invasive, angry, heartful and necessary mess.

-By Andrew McNally

The Lonely Island – “The Wack Album”

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Photo Credit: Pitchfork

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I F****d My Aunt,” “The Compliments”

“The Wack Album” is more of an amalgamate of ideas. The band throws a lot of ideas at the wall,and as soon as one starts to get stale, they move on to the next. Not everything works, but some stick very well. Only two tracks from this album were viral sensations from “SNL,” a show which none of the three members are a part of anymore. This has allowed them to expand into some new territories, with mixed results.

Comedy troupes that spoof hip-hop are certainly not a new thing. It is a very tired route for comedians to take, thanks to the Internet. The Lonely Island were by no means one of the first groups to do it, but they were among the first of the Internet era (remember “Lazy Sunday”? The song aired on “SNL” eight years ago). The Lonely Island have come under the ironic problem of having to sidestep the generic hip-hop parodies that they helped spawn. “The Wack Album,” their third full-length, has its hits and misses. The guest list on the album is as expansive as anyone could possible ask for: Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, the return of T-Pain, Kendrick Lamar, Adam Levine, Kristin Wiig and Hugh Jackman, among others. The guest stars, all having fun in the studio, help to add to the album’s theme of spoofing the very foundations of hip-hop.

The best bits on the album are the ones that have the simplest concepts. “The Compliments” is the three band members – Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone – simply complimenting each other, making fun of insult songs. The song features the best guest spot, from rapper Too $hort, who has no idea what he is doing there. “Meet the Crew” is a parody of rappers constantly saying their own names in songs by being a band introduction with many, crazy personalities (ending with Rod Stewart, played by Samberg). “I F****d My Aunt” has the band members (and T-Pain) recounting childhood memories and following them up with “and [x] years later I f****d my aunt.” It’s an incredibly simple concept with no context, and works well because of it. The album’s best tracks all share this.

The more inventive and inspired bits actually do not work as well here. “YOLO” and “3-Way” are well thought-out, but regular “SNL” viewers are already familiar with those two tracks. “I Run NY” features Samberg rapping from the perspective of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. The song’s inspiration was, inventively so, to spoof all NYC rappers that claim to own the city. But the song falls flat as it quickly becomes a bit about Bloomberg saying profane things he would never say normally. “I Don’t Give a Honk” and “Hugs” cancel each out, as both songs are about replacing the F-word with a safer term, neither of which are very funny. Finally, “Diaper Money” is rapping from the perspective of a married man, but a very profane one, and it all doesn’t really make sense. The Lonely Island have never been ones to stray away from crude and bodily humor (“Dick In a Box” won them an Emmy), which is why the more inspired ideas end up missing. The characters themselves tend not to make sense. “The Wack Album” is at it’s best when the trio, guests or not, are stripped down and working solely with funny concepts.

If You like this, try: “The Sounds of Science,” the Beastie Boys box set that contains some of their lesser-known funny songs. Another white trio from NY that revolutionized comedy-rap.

-By Andrew McNally

Disclosure – “Settle”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “When A Fire Starts to Burn,” “F For You”

A debut from a European dance band coming only weeks after Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” burned up the charts might not seem like a good decision. It worked. Perhaps it was unintentional, but Disclosure might be on to something. The British duo – two brothers of ages 21 and 18 – have perfected an album harking back to dance music of the 90’s, not unlike the aforementioned French duo. Americanized house and dance music (the abrasively loud forms of EDM and dubstep I embraced in college) is still very popular, but has a definite expiration date, and that date might be coming soon. As “Get Lucky” climbs the charts, Boards of Canada release a comeback and Disclosure release a well-anticipated debut on the same day, all signaling a potential return to more controlled forms of dance music.

There is really nothing new on this record. It greatly succeeds, however, as an exploration and combination of many different forms of dance and house music. The combined opening tracks of “Intro” and “When A Fire Starts to Burn” present an almost Prodigy-type of heavy, hip-hop influenced type of electronica. This doesn’t stick around, as the album shifts through various volumes and tempos, and with a whole and welcomed line-up of up-and-coming British singers.

“Settle” is, at its core, exactly what it wants to be, and that is an effective dance record. It even flows well as an album, something nearly every dance band seems to struggle with. It might be very long, but if it’s put on at a party, that will no longer be a complaint. The beats are cooled and controlled, with little invention going on. In a world now filled with Skrillexs and Diplos, that might be just what we need.

-By Andrew McNally

Jimmy Eat World – “Damage”

Photo Credit: Antiquiet

Photo Credit: Antiquiet

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Byebyelove,” “You Were Good”

After some relative successes in the early- to mid-2000s, Jimmy Eat World have been quietly chugging along down the same relative path that led to fame in the first place. Kinda sad, kinda introspective, kinda inspirational, kinda pop, kinda punk alt-rock that is immediately listenable but never very interesting. “Damage,” their eighth album, is really no different. It’s more consistent and related than many of their previous albums, while also falling sometimes into forced or corny moments.

The members of Jimmy Eat World are approaching forty, and their inevitable disconnect from young crowds is becoming apparent. “Damage” tries, with moderate success, to be an ‘adult, break-up record.’ Lyrically, the album is among their stronger works. When it is effective, there are moments of Jim Adkins tearing away at the walls of youth hood. When it isn’t effective, the lyrics are cheesy bits of bad poetry. The album is pretty mix-and-match in this regard. It is consistent, at least, weaving through similar themes in many of the songs, definitely an intentional move.

The music of the album presents a problem, as the band has opted to largely keep the pop-punk sound of their previous albums, which does not successfully correlate with the themes they are attempting to highlight. It also means that many of the songs end up sounding too similar. The tempo is rarely a large difference from the previous track, and the volume almost never changes. This is expected of an album by a band like Jimmy Eat World, it just feels behind-the-times given the lyrical content.

The album’s two best tracks are actually the final two – the awfully-titled “Byebyelove” and “You Were Good.” The penultimate song is the only track on the album that has changes in volume, and has a certain intensity to it that is not achieved anywhere else on the record. “You Were Good” is a dramatic departure for the band, with a stripped-down, acoustic lo-fi sound, reminiscent of depressing folk singer-songwriters like Nick Drake. The change itself is so delightful and unexpected that I found myself caught up more in the realization than the actual song. “Damage” is definitely bolstered by it’s final two songs. Overall, it’s a decent record, one that is worth your time but not your memories. The band struggles to mature, but they’re trying.

If you like this, try: Weezer’s “Maladroit.” I personally think “Damage” will mirror “Maladroit” as an underrated entry in the given band’s canon.

-By Andrew McNally

Deafheaven – “Sunbather”

www.neogaf.com

Photo credit: http://www.neogaf.com

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Vertigo,” “Dream House”

“Sunbather,” a seven track, full-length record, is largely unclassifiable. Deafheaven have been both widely acclaimed in the critic world, and occasionally scorned in the metal world for their blending of genres. The band is currently being labeled as “black metal,” but there is a distinct shoegaze element to their music as well. To put it simply, Deafheaven sounds like a couple guys who wanted to start a metal band but listened almost exclusively to My Bloody Valentine. And there is nothing wrong with that.

This is a brutally heavy record. A majority of the tracks stretch close to or well over ten minutes, allowing the band ample time to stretch their wings and experiment. The songs build up upon themselves, twisting and growing, not unlike God Speed! You Black Emperor. In fact, if it wasn’t for the traditionally growly black metal vocals, Deafheaven would probably be pegged as a very heavy alternative/shoegaze band. But the vocals, as often inaudible as they are, add to the intensity, leaving Deafheaven declaring themselves as a metal band.

“Sunbather” is truly one of the most original and interesting albums I have heard in a long time. I do not have much of an affinity for most subgenres of metal, yet I could do nothing but gasp and let myself be wholly entranced by the band’s originality. Bands are finding it tougher and tougher to make volume equate intensity, but Deafheaven does it ceaselessly. Fans of heavier alternative bands might be able to transition over genres and appreciate what this band is doing. Nearly every track on this album, from the lengthy, abrasively loud songs, to the shorter and quieter interlude pieces, borders on perfection. Only the album’s closer, “The Pecan Tree,” is disappointing, solely because it ends anti-climatically, and this album needs a more proper climax. Give this album a few listens; it might just be one of the most original of the year.

If you like this, try: “Allejuah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” – Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

-By Andrew McNally

Camera Obscura – “Desire Lines”

Photo credit: Spin Magazine

Photo credit: Spin Magazine

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “I Missed Your Party,” “Troublemaker”

Indie-folk bands like Camera Obscura are generally not known for being adventurous and playing around with genres and ideas. Any fan or casual listener of the genre pretty much knows what he or she is getting into when a new album by a band like Camera Obscura comes out. But “Desire Lines,” the band’s fifth album and first in four years, is seriously lacking something. The album is almost minimalistic, relying on only key instruments in a majority of the songs. It adds a certain consistency to the record, that helps it to flow without any rough transitions between ideas. It also, however, starts to feel like one long, run-on song that was not very interesting to start with.

The album, as a whole, feels like an unfinished idea. Indeed, the final track, “Desire Lines,” ends like a normal song. On both listens I found myself checking to see if my Internet had crashed, not realizing I had hit the album’s end. Lyrically, there is little original going on. Some of the more stand out tracks, like “I Missed Your Party” and “William’s Heart” have boring and uninspired lyrics. They are presented, too, by pretty and rhythmic vocals, but singer Tracyanne Campbell does not sound like she believes in her own lyrics.

Musically, the album is largely devoid of any detail. Every song is dominated by conventional rock instruments. Most of the songs seem to take the same relative tempo, with only “Cri Du Coeur”‘s wickedly-slow (and ultimately exceedingly dull) tempo providing a switch. “I Missed Your Party” has a nice addition of horns, which does bring a listener back in towards the album’s close.

“Desire Lines” is a moderately enjoyable listen, to someone who likes indie-folk acts like Rilo Kiley. Once it ends, though, it is immediately forgettable. It is innocent and fun pop, but never tries to be remarkable or original. “Desire Lines” is a low point for the usually great Camera Obscura.

-By Andrew McNally

Queens of the Stone Age – “…Like Clockwork”

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “I Sat By the Ocean,” “Fairweather Friends”

“…Like Clockwork,” the long-teased and longer awaited new album from hard rock heroes Queens of the Stone Age, should be listened to with “Songs For the Dead” in mind, their behemoth, Grammy-winning album from 2002. “…Like Clockwork” is similar to “Songs” in three ways. The first is the re-introduction of former contributors Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan, as well as ousted bassist and founding member Nick Oliveri (who only shows up in background vocals on two songs, but it is still a re-introduction). The other two similarities are thematic. “Songs” was a concept album, imagining a radio playing on a drive in southwestern America, and featured many Christian references. “Clockwork,” too, seems to feature a number of Christian references, if nothing more than metaphors. (Compare 2002′s “God Is in the Radio” to 2013′s “My God is the Sun”) Casual listeners might equate Josh Homme’s lyrics to those of the religiously-tortured soul of Dave Gahan, but Homme frankly chooses to sing about whatever he wants to.

The third similarity is the idea of conventional radio rock. “Songs” had a running theme of QOTSA’s songs playing on every station, in an attempt to solidify themselves as the kings of conventional rock radio. It worked, oddly enough, and they reflect that on “Clockwork.” Every one of the ten tracks feels significantly more conventional and regular than anything they’ve done before, with musical build-ups in slow songs and catchy guitar rhythms in the faster ones. Homme’s vocal melodies are incredibly catchy, even radio-friendly (particularly on the track “If I Had a Tail”). The album is still heavy, of course, but this is a side of QOTSA that has always stayed subtle. It is the band’s shortest album, and has only three songs over five minutes, a departure from the five on “Songs.” Homme likes to throw the audience loops and keep things fresh, which is tough to do for a rock band. “Clockwork” is almost a bit of a joke, in a way, that the original thing about it is its unoriginality. One almost has to wonder if the almost-optimistic sound is a response to Homme’s brush with death, or whether it is more of QOTSA’s relentlessly great tongue-in-cheek humor.

This does lead to some problems, however. “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” the opener, never hits the intensity it thinks it does, and although the hauntingly-rhythmic “I Sat By the Ocean” follows it up, the tepid and unnecessary “The Vampyre of Time and Money” sits right after. And having this feeling of ‘Is this a joke or not?’ is a little iffy given that people have been waiting six years for a new album. The album grows stronger as it proceeds though, bolstered by barely audible but still appealing guest spots from Trent Reznor, Alex Turner and Sir Elton John (which was a surprise to come across). Homme is still heroically egotistical at times, which is when QOTSA is at their best. The album lacks at some points, falling too far into the unoriginality, but it is yet another great entry from the band overall.

-By Andrew McNally